A combination of political will to discriminate in favour of education, the easing of some capping limits, creative accounting and a measure of serendipity has produced a more favourable settlement than most dared hope.
The education savings represent around 20 per cent of total council cuts of Pounds 351 million, considerably less than the 40 per cent of overall expenditure allocated to the service. Budgets have been trimmed by just under 3 per cent on average, ranging from 0.5 per cent in North Ayrshire to 6.5 per cent in Perth and Kinross (North Lanarkshire's figure of 2.4 per cent rises to 4.5 per cent if pre-fives expenditure and the education department's share of corporate savings are included).
But while all councils have ring-fenced education at the expense of other departments, some aspects of the service have been disproportionately hit. Community education, swimming, meals, transport, music tuition, bursaries, supplies and in-service courses will bear the brunt as "core spending" on teaching is protected.
Fears of compulsory redundancies proved unfounded, but staffing ratios have worsened as posts are lost. Along with cuts in curriculum development and inroads into management time for senior staff, the overall effect is unlikely to be good news for teachers.
Many budgets remain in the realm of aspiration rather than fact. Glasgow, for example, had problems realising some of this year's key cuts, not least school closures. The council's axeing of 250 teaching posts, which it believes it can achieve without compulsion, is not as serious as last October's forecast which led officials to predict disaster, with part-time schooling and "dramatic increases" in class sizes.
The city is still warning of a "considerable" impact from the revised jobs shake-out. Primaries will have "marginally higher" class sizes and less learning support, PE and music, according to a report to the city's education committee yesterday (Thursday). Management time in secondaries would be eroded and it will be more difficult to organise co-operative teaching, particularly in English and maths, while minority subjects could be at risk in smaller secondaries.
The Educational Institute of Scotland meanwhile has stepped up its pre-election campaign and cites a poll carried out for the Herald that showed 82 per cent of those questioned put education among their top three spending priorities for local government, comfortably ahead of community care with 64 per cent backing. Just over half said education should be the first priority.
The EIS is sending 100,000 copies of its latest leaflet, the sixth in a pre-election series, to a wide range of interested parties from schools and colleges to education conveners and MPs.
Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, paid tribute to attempts by councils to "limit the damage of Government-imposed cuts in the worst possible circumstances". But Mr Smith warned that "stunning" support for strike action in Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire, which was avertedthis week after the councils lifted the threat of compulsory job losses, showed that union members remain determined to defend the service.
* Comment, page 23